No More Tears – Breath as a Leit Motif

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For the past year, my colleagues and I have been working with a wonderful vocal coach, Martin Lindsay. His sessions are structured in a way that got me thinking. We start with light stretching and breathing exercises, just enough to activate the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. I won’t go into detail about what these exercises entail because I want to focus on the how not the what. The successful how is that these exercises become a leit motif throughout the session; we come back to them regularly, if only briefly. This is such a wonderful way to come back to basics, especially after a difficult passage where tension may have built up. For years I have been thinking of this but using it only haphazardly in my teaching and practice. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of us to use breath awareness as a leit motif on a more regular basis? Imagine how many physical and psychological injuries may be avoided!

I am reminded of a masterclass I attended some years ago given by a high profile flute teacher. The lesson started with a focused breathing session and an intelligent discussion of the breathing process. Then as the student played, she stumbled on a technical passage, over and over again. The teacher, instead of bringing her back to the relaxed and focused state she had at the beginning, continued to berate her for not being prepared. In the end, she was in tears, and I thought, what a shame! Perhaps she didn’t practice enough, but perhaps she didn’t practice well enough? Isn’t it also our job as teachers to address the issue of how to practice? Breathing awareness (whether you do actual exercises or not) should not be just an item on our checklist to be crossed off at the beginning of our session. We have to incorporate our awareness of good breathing in the literal sense of the word: to absorb it into our bodies. This will include repetition just as the development of a difficult passage, or the development of any good habit, will include repetition. To make any practice successful, whether musical, spiritual or the latest diet, it is not enough to just pay lip service. I pledge to make breathing awareness my leit motif.


Looking Inward

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Samir_ChatterjeeHere are some notes from a tabla workshop I attended, given by Samir Chatterjee. Like my former teacher, Chatterjee is one of the few Indian musicians who has a clear understanding of the Western education system and is able to teach non-Indians by verbal communication, i.e., someone who can explain his music in a way that makes sense to us.

I won’t get into the technical things we learned, you can find explanations for basic tabla bols here, for example. Or better, from Chatterjee’s Book A Study of Tabla. I’ll only share the personal stuff.

One thing that gave me hope: he said you don’t really become a musician until you are over fifty. Before that you are too busy with yourself. And if you have had a near-death experience, even better!

The Hindustani practice of chilla-khana intrigues me. You are shut in seclusion for 40 days with your instrument for intense study. Breaks are only for bathroom, naps and snacking. The room is darkened and there is no contact with the outside world; however, the process must be monitored by a guru. He talked about the emotions experienced, you might cry for a whole day, then find yourself laughing for no reason. Certainly, the person coming out is very different from the person who went in!

Our senses were created to perceive and make sense of the outside world. Chatterjee mentioned that one aspect of the philosophy of the Vedas is to turn these attentions inward. What happens when we direct these senses inside?

He also spoke of his relationship to his instruments, and the relationship we all develop with our instruments. He maintains that his tablas can speak to him. If I start thinking this is strange, I have to remind myself that it is exactly this I am striving for when improvising or interpreting. How can I speak through my instrument if it is completely stumm? 

And speaking of aging, he told how after a concert he encountered a renowned musician weeping inconsolably. Perhaps someone died? No, this musician, at the age of ninety-five, was finally able to play something he’d been working on his whole life. So if you see me crying after a concert someday, don’t worry!


Harmonic Exercises, with Articulation too!

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When playing through the harmonic series, the second overtone (a twelth above the fundamental) is a great check point. When students begin learning harmonics, this one often proves elusive because of the tendency to cover too much of the embouchure hole. By rolling out a bit and blowing down, it usually speaks. The following exercise I find useful because it begins by alternating between the normal fingerings and the harmonic fingerings. For those new to harmonic exercises, it provides a good anchor.


The next page gives a workout for the lips, and introduces articulation to harmonics, although it is also useful to practice legato in bars 13 to 38. I find articulation exercises with harmonics, such as those in Trevor Wye’s book, to be great stabilizers and strengtheners for the embouchure.



Continuing with articulation, I am further inspired by Paul Edmund-Davies’ “The 28 Day Warm Up Book”. His articulation exercises are a mainstay of my warm up, and I decided to go one further and translate some into harmonic exercises. (Read my review of this book here.) This first exercise strengthens the elusive second overtone:



This next one overblows the third overtone. It is for those already strong in this area; please don’t over do it, or any of these exercises. It is useful to combine these variations with Edmund-Davies’ original.